Spotlight on Geopolitics

In a recent post appeared on his Foreign Policy blog (“The United States is too secure for its own good“), Steven M. Walt, a Harvard professor of International Relations, blasts the American conservatives’ obstruction of the Start II ratification. As nuclear arms reduction seems to be at the core of the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda, Republicans are hoping to discredit it simply because it belongs to a Democrat president. As a self-confessed member of the realist school in international relations (that regards the world as inherently chaotic and unpredictable, which implies the need for a strong US military), professor Walt recognises nevertheless that the US’ current military capabilities are much larger than the potential threats facing it, international terrorism included. The oversized military power, beside being extremely costly to the American taxpayer, is also pushing the United States, according to the same professor Walt, to follow larger-than-life foreign policy goals, a development which upsets America’s allies and potential foes alike.

To be sure,the United States are still the most powerful – economically and militarily – nation in the world. Its economic and military might, however, have not translated into any military or diplomatic successes of late. Temporarily boosted at the end of the cold war by the unravelling of the Soviet Union, the US’ international standing and power have started to deteriorate again after the invasion of Iraq. A subsequent series of foreign policy errors, such as the current “containment of China” drive in Asia and the re-resetting of its Russia policy have accelerated that trend and made it irreversible.

The containment of China policy

According to Emmanuel Puig (“L’ordre et la menace: analyse critique du discours de la menace chinoise en Relations internationales”), the American security and international relations experts, many of them committed cold warriors, have begun to sell the “Chinese menace” as the biggest potential threat to the US’ national interest. These experts, who during the eighties were not even able to predict the implosion of the Soviet Union, are now back in the saddle within academia, the State Department or conservative think tanks like The Heritage Foundation, spreading their new anti-China message to a largely uneducated American public, courtesy of decades of neglect of the secondary school system . Thus,the knowledge of international issues of the average American is so poor that even politicians like former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin believe that the US presence in Iraq was mandated by God, or that America’s main ally in the Korean peninsula is…North Korea. These days, the partisans of engaging China, who were in vogue during the nineties, are currently being replaced by security and foreign policy experts advocating China’s containment.

The Asian balance of power

To contain China, the US State and Defense Secretaries have lately been courting assiduously Asian countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan and especially India. Below is a sample of the foreign policy software on which President Obama’s recent overtures to India have been based:

“President Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to India offers a unique opportunity to cement a global partnership with a rapidly emerging power. Set to become the world’s third or fourth largest economy by 2030, India could become America’s most important strategic partner.

In coming decades, a strong bilateral partnership will prove vital in managing the rise of China and promoting an Asian balance of power that is favorable to India, the United States, and Asia as a whole. India’s success as a democracy also strengthens freedom globally and protects broader American interests.

For its part, the Obama administration should take a number of steps to reaffirm its support for India’s rise, its democratic achievements, and its struggle for security. Notably, the US should reaffirm its support for a larger Indian role in international organizations and help integrate India into the global non-proliferation regime.

In this context, the Obama administration should endorse India’s quest for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Obama should also support India’s membership in key non-proliferation organizations like the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime.

India, too, must do its part. It can begin by creating greater opportunities for US firms – including from the nuclear industry – to invest in India’s economic success. It can expand defense cooperation beyond purchases of American-made military equipment by deepening its diplomatic engagement with the US to help find solutions to the difficult problems stemming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. In short, India’s government should look for ways to sustain America’s interest in India during difficult times.” (Ashley J. Tellis : Building the India-US Partnership, 4.11.2010, Project Syndicate)

Unfortunately for all concerned, by using a 19th century balance of power approach to addressing the problems of the 21st century, the Obama administration runs the risk of alienating China and, indeed, most of Asia, without much diplomatic or economic gain in return. A much more sensible approach for the US president would be to fundamentally reframe America’s foreign policy along the lines already discussed by State Department experts in 2009. Also, by opting for what Joseph Nye calls “soft power” instead of maintaining a hugely oversized military, and by replacing the elusive elimination of nuclear weapons goal with a much more comprehensive, pragmatic and feasible foreign policy agenda, Barak Obama could make a decisive contribution to international stability and America’s improved standing in world affairs. As the conduct of foreign policy is a presidential prerogative, one which does not need the approval of Congress, the Republicans would not be able to thwart the president’s initiatives to this effect.

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  1. I’m an Indian, and frankly, I think US and India getting too close at this stage is unlikely to help anyone. While India is a growing economy, it has too much inertia to be of any use to the US “balance of power” ambitions. I look at the attitudes around the world and find that we are a far more laid back lot with deep rooted disinclination for conflict – at least the majority of the population and most politicians.

    The US is also unlikely to be trusted too much by India while it blindly sponsors the Pakistan Army, which in turn has made attacking India its muse. No matter how much sweet talk happens, this bottom line is kind of difficult to fudge for long.

    As you point out, its unlikely to be a good idea for Asia or the US relations with them.

    As the leaked cables point out, its unlikely to be good for Pakistan to see US getting closer to India. The Army will keep shoring itself up (including accelerated nuclear weapons) while the country starves.

    India is an emerging country in the landscape of power and is going through a lot of change and challenges. The one thing we need desperately right now is to keep our founding democratic principles squarely in sight as we wade through the years of dirt being unearthed. Frankly, the more influence the US has on us, the more power oriented attitudes will replace values. In a formative stage, we simply don’t have precedents and experience to protect us. We need to grow into our power with great introspection and thought. This kind of catapulting will only make politicians depend on external examples, which are quite dangerous to adopt from the US. A rogue Pakistan is still small fry compared with the nightmare a power mad India could become if it leaves its traditional soft approaches as a side effect of quick learning to manage power and influence. No one seems to recognize this as something to be cautious about.

    Business is business, and I guess no harm. However, claims of alliances and partnerships and fronts of power are quite dangerous. Perhaps I’m paranoid, because no one else seems worried about this.

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